Mary’s Sorrows – Lent Retreat in Daily Living Week 4

This week is the fourth week of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at UST and at St. Hubert’s. During our gathering today, we had an extended discussion after our period of small group sharing, leaving very little time for me to speak about the subject of this week’s prayer – The Seven Sorrows of Mary.

The discussion was useful, however. One of the things that surfaced was the difficulty a couple of people had in putting aside sufficient time for prayer each day, leading to feelings of guilt. For one person, it appeared that the idea of sitting down to pray for 30 minutes seemed so daunting that it kept her from praying at all. So she kept putting it off and a time to pray never happened.

While it would be wonderful if retreatants could all pray each day for an extended period, my suggestion was to pick an amount of time that didn’t seem daunting to her, even if that was 10 minutes and to try to do that every day, without guilt that it wasn’t longer. In my view, the most important thing is to develop the habit of taking some quiet time each day with God. Once a daily habit is established, I suspect people will find it easier to sit for longer periods.

Several comments suggested there might be some source of resistance to engaging in the prayer. Confronting resistance when it arises is difficult (kind of by definition), but I suggested it was worth taking some time in reflection to see if it might be possible to identify the source of the resistance.

Apart from difficulties in prayer, the other thing that came out of the discussion of the experience of praying with events from the life of Jesus is the challenge they present for us. That is, when one deeply engages in the scripture and reflects on what it has to say to us and our lives, we may find we are often guilty of the same sorts of things we can so easily criticize the subjects of various of the Gospel incidents – the people who walked away from Jesus’ teachings…those who denied him…those who were ready to cast stones at the woman caught in adultery…etc. When we, deeply engage in the scripture, rather than (as one participant put it) read them as thought they were simply stories, we are forced to ask some hard questions about the depth of our own discipleship.

After our discussion, I gave a brief talk to introduce this week’s prayer on the Seven Sorrows of Mary. You can stream the podcast from the icon below or can download it here. (The podcast runs for 13:38.) You can find a copy of this week’s prayer material on the Seven Sorrows here.


Living in Community

Yesterday afternoon I moderated a dialogue at UST law school sponsored by two student groups – the St. Thomas More Society, our Catholic law student association, and Outlaw, which educates members regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. The subject of the dialogue was same-sex marriage and related issues.

Recognizing that there are sharply divergent views on this issue but that we live as part of the same community, the students hoped that their dialogue would allow them to “find a level of understanding and, if possible, commonality that will allow us to engage each other in more respectful and loving ways without losing sight of substance and real differences in our views.”

We had four panelists (two students from each of the sponsoring groups). They started the dialogue by each making an initial statement of who they were, why the issue was important to them and what their perspective was. They then each posed one question to the members of the other group, after which we invited participation by the audience.

I was very proud of both the four students who were the panelists and of all those in the audience who participated in the discussion. Diverse views were expressed – and some quite strongly. But the conversation was conducted in a respectful manner, without any of the name-calling or other insulting behavior that often accompanies such discussion. What I experienced was people trying to both convey their own views and to understand the views of those with whom they disagreed. And what I saw was an emphasis on how to be in relationship with each other…how to love. It was particularly rewarding to listen to the four panelists talk about how they grew in relationship with each other during their long discussions in preparation for the event.

One of the students on the panel drew a distinction I thought was an important one for diverse people trying to live in community – a distinction between changing views and broadening perspectives. The former, he observed, is not necessary for the latter to take place. And that is really what yesterday’s dialogue was about – not an effort by anyone to change the mind of the other (an effort that often results in hostility and defensiveness), but a mutual effort to help (very small) part in it.

Invitations to the Table of the Lord

One of my struggles with Catholicism has to do with the question of who is invited to the Eucharist. Catholic teaching is that only those who are in “full communion with the Catholic Church” may receive Eucharist at a Catholic Mass.

I understand the words that explain the Catholic position – the belief that “the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship” – but it still makes me uncomfortable. I look at all the people Jesus shared bread with during his lifetime and I question whether Jesus would have adopted the same position.

Given that, I was moved by the Great Thanksgiving that was prayed immediately prior to the Sanctus at the Espicopal Mass I attended on Sunday morning. Here it is:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
It is to be made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will
that you who want God should meet God here.

For me, this approach expresses the power of the Eucharist more than does an exclusionary approach. I am less interested in using the Eucharist as a sign that we are one than as a way for us to become one. Not a symbol of what is, but that which helps us to what can be. It is not an orthodox approach from a Catholic standpoint, but, it seems to me that it has a lot to recommend it.

God’s Image Not Our Image

Yesterday morning I attended Mass at St. John’s Episcopal in Minneapolis, as my dear friend Richard was preaching, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to hear him. He had a beautiful Gospel passage to preach on – Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

This encounter was, as Richard observed, an encounter that, by the mores of the day, should not have taken place: men didn’t talk to unaccompanied women and Jews didn’t converse with Samaritans. But it did take place; two people separated by a chasm of difference met each other…and something happened when they did.

Near the end of his sermon, Richard quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that “[t]he challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” I think Sacks is absolutely right.

There is no great challenge in seeing God’s image in those who are like us. The likeness may be physical – those of the same race or gender or sexual orientation. Or it may be philosphical – those who share our beliefs. When people look like us and sound like us, it is easier to affirm them, easier to remember their place with God, easier to recognize them as our sister and brother.

But, that confuses our image with God’s image. As an ancient Jewish teaching quoted by Sacks in The Dignity of Difference (from which the above quote was taken), “God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.”

We are not called to see our image in the face of the other, but God’s image. And so it would be worthwhile to reflect on how well we encounter those who are to us as the Samaritans were to the Jews of Jesus’ day. For, as Sacks writes, “[w]e do not have to share a creed or code to be partners in the covenant of mankind. The prophets of Israel wrestle with an idea still counterintuitive to the Platonic mind: that moral and spiritual dignity extend far beyond the boundaries of any one civilization. They belong to the other, the outsider, the stranger, the one who does not fit our system, race or creed.”

Postscript: I am hopeful that Richard’s sermon will appear within the week on the St. Johns’ website here. And for another beautiful reflection on yesterday’s Gospel, check out my friend Aidan’s audio reflection here.

Lent: An Invitation to Lay Aside Some Things and Pick Up Others

Lent is an invitation to conversion. And whatever else it involves, conversion involves giving up some things and taking up others.

Last week I posted a podcast of the opening talk I gave at a women’s weekend Lent retreat at St. Ignatius early in March. At the Saturday morning session of that retreat, I gave a talk on giving over and taking up. My staring point was Mary, because I think her life offers a way to reflect on what conversion asks of us. I spoke of what Mary was asked to give up…and what she took up by her acceptance of God’s invitation to be part of his plan for salvation.

Then I spoke about some of the things we are asked to give up as part of our own processes of conversion: our notion that our own individual plan is the guide for our lives, a sense of being settled, and cleanly and comfortabley fitting in. Finally, I talked about some of the things we are asked to pick up, which, while seemingly more attractive than the things we are asked to give up, are things we struggle with nonetheless.

Although I taped several of the talks I gave during that retreat, my recorder ran out of batteries during this talk. I finally had a chance yesterday to record a version of the talk. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it here. (Remember that you can also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

Receiving Christ

In honor of the Solemnity of the Annunciation yesterday, on the way home from work I listened to Danielle Rose’s Let it Be Done Unto Me, a beautiful song of the Annunciation. (I wrote about the song once before, here.)

What struck me this time was the final stanza of the song, which goes:

She said yes to the Father
Yes to the unborn
Yes with all her strength
Yes to God alone
The First Holy Communion took place that blessed day
Christ came into her body
When Mary chose to say
When Mary chose to say…
Let it be done unto me

I wonder sometimes whether receiving Communion hasn’t become commonplace or routine for us. We go up and, probably with very little thought, say “Amen” when the Priest or Minister of Communion says “The Body of Christ.”

As I listened to the last stanza and its allusion to First Holy Communion – particularly the idea the Christ came into Mary’s body when she said “let it be done unto me,” my thought was this. What difference might it make if each time we received Communion, we consciously said to ourselves, “Let it be done unto me”? Doing so might just make us more conscious of the fact that we are consenting to receiving Christ into our being, consenting to the transformative power of God.

There is nothing commonplace or routine about it.

What Mary Gave Up to Accept God’s Invitation

Whatever else it involves, allowing ourselves to be transformed by God involves giving up some things we might have formed some attachment to. Consider the example of Mary, who we celebrate today on this feast of the Annunciation.

A young woman in love is engaged to be married. What is her vision of her future? When she contemplates what her life will be, what does it look like, feel like to her?

A nice wedding – perhaps as she imagines it, she can almost taste her favorite dishes that will be part of the wedding feast.

Maybe a little time alone with her husband in marriage – getting to know each other better – physically (she perhaps blushes as that through crosses her mind) as well as emotionally, beginning to grow into their life together.

She pictures the home they will make together, imagining all the little touches she will put on the place in which they will live together. (Perhaps she has already started sewing items they will use around the house.)

Then the birth of their first child, who she knows they will both love (and probably spoil). So excited is she that the pains of pregnancy don’t even enter her mind.

The fist child starts to grow, and a second comes along, perhaps a third. She sees her and her husband educating their children together – in their faith, in a trade, in other life skills.

She imagines her children growing, and the pride she will feel as they go off on their own. And she smiles thinking of their own weddings…and the children they will bear – her grandchildren.

She imagines all of these things and gives thanks to God for blessing her with this wonderful man she is going to marry.

And then an angel visits her and tells her a story that must have sounded shocking to her ears and that must have terrified her. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you will conceive and bear the Son of God. God has a plan and God wants you to be part of that plan.

It is impossible for us to really imagine what must have gone through Mary’s mind when she heard the news. Confusion. Anxiety. Fear.

But we know that somehow she worked her way through all of these emotions and was able to say Yes to God’s invitation to be part of God’s plan. Yes, Lord, as you will. Let it be done unto me according to your Word.

Are we willing to give up our plans, our attachments, to say yes to God’s invitation as fully as did Mary?

Sliding From the Head to the Heart

I’m not saying anything most Catholics don’t acknowledge to themselves, even if many don’t like to say it out loud, when I observe that the quality of homilies in Catholic Churches is often not very good. While I’ve been the beneficiary of some wonderful homilies from Jesuits at my retreat house in NY and from a number of the Vincentians at St. John’s University in NY, and at the law school from some of the priest who celebrate our daily Masses, I have been largely uninspired by many homilies in the various parishes I’ve attended on a Sunday. To give full disclosure, I sometimes find myself attending two Masses on Sunday: one on my own parish (so I can worship with my family) and a second at an Episcopal church, where I can be assured of a good homily.

Why it is the case the Sunday homilies at Catholic parishes are often lacking, I don’t know. My husband generously suggests it is that parish priests are overworked and simply do not have the time to adequately prepare. There may be other reasons.

But the bottom line is that a good homily adds something important to the liturgy. My daughter’s way of expressing what is a “good homily” is one that adds something to what she gets from simply hearing the readings proclaimed. A homily that brings the scripture readings together in a way that gives “added value.”

I agree with my daughter’s statement, and, since I often pray with the Mass reading of the day during my morning prayer, I love nothing better than a homily that opens a passage to me in a way differently from how it unfolded in my morning prayer.

But I think there is something else that is important also, and it was expressed in a simple line from a column in a recent issue of Commonweal. In Joys (& Fears) of Cooking: A Homilist’s Education, Fr. Nonomen writes about how he prepares for his Sunday sermons – a process that begins on the preceding Monday – and then expresses that his “goal is to make [his] words about the Scripture slide from the head to the heart.”

I love that expression: slide from the head to the heart. A good homily, I believe, doesn’t just address our head. It is not a summary or paraphrase of the readings and it is not academic exegesis. It instead is something that should touch our hearts, allowing us to experience God and the way God is at work in our lives.

Will every homily be successful in touching every person who hears it? Clearly not. But it is not too much, I think, to hope that that is the goal of those who have the privilege of preaching every week.

Recognizing our Talents

At the weekly gathering of the participants doing the Lent Retreat in Daily Living at St. Hubert, we had a discussion about the difficulties so many people have acknowledging their giftedness.

During last week, one of their days of prayer focused on the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel. The questions I had asked the participants to reflect on included these: “Do I hesitate to recognize my giftedness? Am I willing to own the gifts God has given me? If I am hesitatnt to do so, what is the source of that hesitation?” I also asked the partiicpants to name at least one of the gifts God had given them and share with God how they might better use that gift to further God’s plan of salvation.

After some small group sharing of their prayer experience, when we came together for questions and discussion, sevearl people observed that this was a hard exercise, the most difficult of the prayer for that week. I think their experience is not atypical.

We have had drummed into us that we should not be prideful. We read in Scripture Jesus’ admonition to have humility. And we remember the parable of the Phrarisee and Tax Collector and, in particular, Jesus’ reaction to the pride of the Pharisee. As a result, we are worried, as one person suggested, that acknowledging our gifts is akin to “tooting our own horn.”

Jesus did warn against pride and instructed us to be humble. But he also told his disciples not to hide their light under a bushel.

We have all been gifted by God. But we cannot use those gifts if we don’t acknowledge them. It will be impossible for us to discern how we can best serve God’s plan of salation is we don’t accurately assess and own the gifts we have been given. We were given our gifts to use for the life of the world, not to hide in a closet.

One of the things I told the group is that if they can remember something else that was part of their prayer for that previous week – the first of the Beatitudes – they might find it easier to acknowlege their gifts without worrying about arrogance or pride. That is, if we truly have poverty of spirit – if we recongize our complete and utter dependence on God, then we know that the gifts are not our doing, but God’s.

Of course, we always need to be careful to be sure we are using the gifts we have been given for God’s glory and not our own, but it is important that we not shy away from recognizing those gifts.

God Sent His Son

“Who do you say I am?,” asked Jesus of his apostles. Christology is the branch of theology that tries to answer that question, addressing the doctrines concerning the person and works of Jesus Christ. As one might imagine, there are many, many books out there for people who wish to study the subject.

Last year, Ignatius Press published an English translation of a wonderful book of Christology by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria. The book is titled God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology.

In describing his approach, Cardinal Schonborn calls the book the result of sixteen years of lecturing on the subject and over thirty years of dealing with Christological subjects. The length of his study and reflection on the subject is evident in the book.

As I’ve openly admitted (more than once), I’m not a theologian, and my interest is primarily in books that feed my soul, that is, whether it gives me things to reflect on that will deepen my faith and my relationship with God. Much theology, therefore, doesn’t satisfy me. I can enjoy reading and exercising my mind with it for a while, but am often left unsatisfied.

This book, however, satisfies head and heart. It is scholarly and comprehensive, but it is also spiritually enriching. Some of the Cardinal’s reflections were new thoughts to me and others helped me to see things in different ways. Even some which were not new at all we written beautifully enough to arrest me.

While some readers will appreciate more than I did the discussion of the early councils of the Church (some of which, I admit, I skimmed) or the discussions of the doctrines of Anselm or Martin Luther, I was most moved by the sections discussing Jesus’ consciousness of himself and his mission and on other aspects of his humanity and on the contemplation of some of the mysteries of the life of Jesus.

But the thought I want to leave you with comes not from any of those parts, but from a passage early in the book that makes an important point about the Incarnation.

Anyone who sees only the material greatness of the cosmos, and not the orders of mind and love, will also find it difficult to have any understanding for the mystery of the Incarnation. Without the order of love, it is incomprehensible that God should have chosen, on this planet, the small, unimpressive existence of a man, of a child, on order to redeem us.

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